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S & H Concert Review

Sibelius, Symphony No.4 – Mozart, Requiem and Ave verum corpus: Sally Matthews(soprano), Pamela Helen Stephen(mezzo-soprano), Mark Padmore(tenor), Alfred Reiter(bass), London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Franz Welser-Möst, Barbican Hall, February 15th (H-T W)


What may have been London’s loss, has been Zürich’s, and now, Cleveland’s gain. But may be not. When Franz Welser-Möst was catapulted on to the London music scene to take over concerts with the LPO because of an indisposed Klaus Tennstedt he was a virtually unknown greenhorn in his mid 20s. He immediately established a close relationship with this orchestra and showed enormous promise. In 1990, the LPO’s sadly missed late Klaus Tennstedt stepped down as its music director because of ill heath and it was Welser-Möst who succeeded him. His self-confidence, the strong backing by prominent people, who rightly believed in his talent and leadership qualities and his rapport with the orchestra seemed to be the ideal qualifications. But he took over at a time of great upheaval and uncertainty for the London freelance orchestras and he was in no way prepared for the political battles which lay ahead.

Naturally, he made mistakes, but he had no real backing from the LPO’s board, itself fighting internal problems. Soon, the orchestra turned against him and so did the critics. For me it is a sad fact that in London well disguised artistic mediocrity pays off, but not risk taking. Welser-Möst took risks; often he succeeded, but not always. All the concerts I attended during his six-year reign as Music Director of the LPO showed brilliant, if some times risky or occasionally uneven music making; his programming did not always go down well with the RFH audiences either. Finally, the critics decided his downfall and in 1996 he left to become Music Director of the Zürich Opera House. In 2002, he succeeded Christoph von Dohnányi as Music Director of that most cultivated of the great American orchestras, the Cleveland. My spies there are all very happy indeed to have such an engaged and versatile chief conductor, who spends more time with the orchestra than anybody before him.

Franz Welser-Möst was certainly not made for London at this early stage in his career. Having been an admirer of his intense and direct musical command, I was only too happy to welcome him back for two concerts with the LSO at the Barbican. For unforeseen reasons I had to miss the first, but the second concert delivered the proof I was longing for. He had matured without having lost any of his risk taking, any of his vibrant directness and bite or his appetite for unusual programs. To open a concert with the 4th Symphony by Sibelius, his most modern work `close to European Expressionism´ and in his own words a  "psychological symphony" is dangerously courageous. An audience not too familiar with this work, which is difficult to understand and which allows various interpretations in its moods, colours and its breath, may drift away. Not everybody seemed able to concentrate or follow the extremely dark, depressive and introvert line Welser-Möst had opted for. But the LSO followed his intentions passionately and came up with a rare intensity and an incredible pianissimo, where necessary.

For Welser-Möst this symphony rightly mirrors Edvard Munch´s paintings; the dance like second and the slow third movement possessed a Mahleresque character, while the last movement finished with deeply felt resignation. In 1908, after having had surgery to remove a tumour from his throat, Sibelius´ thoughts were encircled by his mortality, a motive dictating the complexity of the entire symphony. Mortality may also have played an important part in Mozart´s last work, the commissioned, but unfinished, Requiem Mass in D Minor, KV 626, which followed after the interval.

But as much as Mozart may have also written it for himself, he remained a child of his time, when music for the church used to be jubilant, earthy and joyful. His Requiem is no exception – and Welser-Möst together with a slightly smaller LSO and the entire London Symphony Chorus proved this point with an unforgettable and inspired interpretation of lightness, contrast, breathtaking tempi and overpowering beauty. Of the four excellent soloists, the soprano Sally Matthews, in particular, deserves to be mentioned. Her entrance with `Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison` sounded like an angel from Heaven – an ideal voice for the Countess in "Le nozze di Figaro". With the first part of the Lacrimosa, Mozart’s autograph ends. Here, Welser-Möst created a tranquillity and mood of distant eternity.

After Mozart’s death his friend and pupil Franz Xaver Süßmayr finished the Requiem following as closely as possible the instructions Mozart had given him on his deathbed. But the final Agnus Dei sounds somehow pompous and disappointing. As soon as it had died away, Welser-Möst kept his arms up and a couple of seconds later finished the Requiem with the short motet "Ave verum corpus" – the best solution I have ever experienced and the ideal way to bring Mozart’s last work to a fitting conclusion. Chorus and orchestra delivered this exquisite gem in unsurpassable style – one could even feel, how the audience’s flesh began to creep.

Hans-Theodor Wohlfahrt        


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